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2016-11-29 15:22:15
News Outlets Rethink Usage of the Term ‘Alt-Right’

When The Washington Post published a profile last week of Richard B. Spencer, a prominent leader of the so-called alt-right, readers were quick to respond. By Monday, the article had drawn more than 2,600 comments.

Many of them had a similar message.

“Please, please stop referring to a white Christian supremacist movement as the ‘alt-right’ — a phrase that sounds like a subgenre of rock music,” one reader wrote.

Another was more pointed: “STOP CALLING THEM ‘ALT-RIGHT.’ THEY ARE RACISTS, WHITE SUPREMICISTS, NAZIS.”

With the election of Donald J. Trump — and his subsequent appointment of Stephen K. Bannon, a former chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart News, as his chief White House strategist — the term alt-right has emerged as a linguistic flash point. Generally deployed by news organizations to describe a far-right, white nationalist movement known for its aggressive online expression, the term has attracted widespread criticism among those, particularly on the left, who say it euphemizes and legitimizes the ideologies of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and white supremacy.

The alt-right was relatively unknown until last year, when the group’s support for Mr. Trump elevated it into the national political debate. In August, Hillary Clinton denounced the movement in a speech that sought to link Mr. Trump with the alt-right’s more extreme elements.

It was the selection of Mr. Bannon, who has called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right,” that brought the term under fire. Now, prompted in part by the kind of condemnation evident in the comments on The Post article, news organizations are examining their use of the term.

Last Wednesday, The Washington Post circulated style guidelines for several terms, including alt-right, which it defined in part as “a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state” whose adherents are “known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.”

And on Monday, The Associated Press published its own usage guidance for the term, saying that journalists should not use the term without defining it because “it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.”

The standards editor at NPR published a memo in mid-November titled “Guidance on References to the ‘Alt-Right,’” that encouraged an explanation of the term, and the progressive news site ThinkProgress said in a post last week that it would “no longer treat ‘alt-right’ as an accurate descriptor of either a movement or its members” because the term is used as a self-descriptor and obscures the group’s overt racism.

The Wall Street Journal has used the term, but a spokeswoman said in an email that it prefers to be “more precise about groups or individuals, reporting on their specific actions or statements.”

The New York Times has had many conversations about the term but has not banned it, said Phil Corbett, The Times’s standards editor. Reporters are encouraged to explain what the term means rather than use it as a label, he said.

Defenders of the term argue that it is an appropriate characterization of a new group for which existing definitions do not capture the full range of ideologies and prejudices.

“In the case of the alt-right, I think that the tendency has been to want to simply do away with the term and use the term ‘white nationalist,’ but I don’t think that captures the stew of hate,” said Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, who studies conservatism and the media. Existing terms, including white nationalism, do not reflect the group’s distinct history, media tactics or myriad hostilities, including its “hard-core misogyny,” she said.

She said news organizations should routinely define the meaning of alt-right so that readers understand the specific viewpoints it encompasses. “We can’t just use new words and new labels without describing what they are,” she said. “I think if news organizations are meticulous about defining their terms, then I think people will come to understand what the alt-right is.”

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, a conservative magazine, said he was not opposed to using the term, either, if it was applied narrowly — that is, to describe “people who are obsessed with race and, in one form or another, are white supremacists.”

But he said it would be incorrect to use the label more broadly to describe others on the conservative spectrum, such as the populist and nationalist wing of the Republican Party. “From where we sit, the alt-right is kind of a motley collection of white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” he said. “It’s a mistake to label people who aren’t that the alt-right.”

News organizations have often contended with the issue of terminology used to describe certain groups, viewpoints or ideologies, particularly when they carry political implications.

“Journalists and other people in political life are always arguing about the naming of things,” said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute.

In the past, the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” to identify people who either support or oppose abortion rights, have both generated backlash, as have the terms “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented worker” to describe foreigners who are in the country without legal documentation.

News organizations have also grappled with the word “torture” to describe the C.I.A.’s interrogation techniques. For years, The Times avoided using the word to avoid taking sides in a legal and political fight.

In 2014, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, wrote in a post on the newspaper’s website that The Times had recalibrated its language and would henceforth use the word torture to “describe incidents in which we know for sure that interrogators inflicted pain on a prisoner in an effort to get information.”

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have increased the intensity of debates over language and broadened their audience. That could prompt news organizations to more quickly examine the words they use, said Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab.

“Journalists who are on Twitter are seeing the negative reaction to a word choice, a headline choice, whatever it may be,” he said, adding that he expected to see more rapid action from news organizations in response to such criticism.

But while it is inevitable that certain terms, especially ones that may be politically charged, will provoke some level of debate, the solution, many journalists say, is to describe rather than label.

Parsing a term heavy with connotations is “hard work” said Cameron Barr, a managing editor at The Washington Post. But he added: “It’s incumbent upon us to provide clear and dispassionate definitions of what these things mean.”